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This content is taken from the Royal Observatory Greenwich's online course, Our Solar System and Beyond: Teaching Primary Science. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds [BIRDS WHISTLING]

Skip to 0 minutes and 18 seconds I’m here in the Octagon Room at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. And this is a very special room because it’s where the Astronomer Royals of old once looked through their early telescopes at amazing things, like the shadows of the mountains on the moon, and rare events, like comets and asteroids. And in this video, we’re going to try and look into the ideas of light and dark, and light and shadow, and try and recreate what they saw through their telescopes by creating our very own solar system– a solar system in a box. So first of all, we need something for the planets for our solar system in a box. And also, we need a light source– something for the sun.

Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds So for our planets, we can just roll up some plasticine into a ball like this. And we can also make some features. If this is Mars, we can use a pen lid to make some craters on Mars. It’s really good to use a pen lid because when you push it in, you don’t just get a crater, you also get a mountain in the centre, which is really good for casting shadows. So we can use the pen lid a few times to make some craters on Mars. And then, use the pen lid itself as a stand for the planet.

Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds And then, we can use some more plasticine as a base and place Mars in with the other planets for our solar system in a box. And here, you see that the planets are not to scale in their size or distance, but we do have four rocky planets and four gas giants. And our light source, the sun at the centre, is just a torch. And on top, a transparent bowl, which shines out and the light reflects off or bounces off the planets so we can see them. So we’ve got daytime on this side of the planet and we’ve got nighttime on the other side– light and dark.

Skip to 2 minutes and 8 seconds And on the rocky planets, Mercury and Mars, we can get a chance to see the shadows on those two planets. And to complete our solar system in a box, we like to put the box on top. And one good way of making the box as dark as possible is to put some black card in there or to paint it black inside. And finally, you’d want to have a little flap on the side, cut out so pupils can have a look in. And we can place our box on top of our solar system. Pupils can look inside and explore light and dark, light and shadow in their very own solar system in a box.

We demonstrate it

This video shows how our Royal Observatory Greenwich Astronomer Brendan Owens used the same equipment we gave you to make the Solar System in a box. This is such a simple idea but very effective, some of you may even have had the same idea. This demonstration works well because it isn’t too abstract and helps to teach the concept of scale in our solar system which is very tricky indeed.

When it comes to demonstrations they can be your best friend or your worst enemy so our advice is use them carefully.

Demos are fantastic to help explain abstract concepts if the model or analogy you use is incredibly similar to the concept you are trying to describe. If it is too much of a jump a demo will fail because the task becomes more about trying to work out what the actual demo means rather than the astronomy concept it was initially designed to help explain.

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This video is from the free online course:

Our Solar System and Beyond: Teaching Primary Science

Royal Observatory Greenwich